"Respected ladies and gentlemen take heed. The time will come when such tragedies will be no more. For knowledge will conquer prejudice, truth will conquer lies, and love will triumph over hatred."
– Different from the Others
This week, we will begin our second series, in which we will discuss queer representation in film and television. For the first time in the history of this project, it will be in chronological order. To start this series, we find ourselves at the beginning, at the first film to portray queer people positively and explicitly: Different from the Others (Anders Als Die Andern) which was released in 1919. We want to clarify that this is not a media review, so we will not be discussing the quality of the film, but instead its existence and its contents.
In the discussion of this film, we will see the return of a man who has previously appeared in our Queer History series: Magnus Hirschfeld. To look at this film, we must briefly go over some facts about Hirschfeld again.
Magnus Hirschfeld was a gay Jewish man living in Berlin, Germany pre-World War 2, and his very existence was very controversial. Though during that time Berlin was the hub of queer research and culture (largely because of Hirschfeld himself and his Institute of Sexology), Hirschfeld was not universally liked, even within the queer community. Much of this was due to the rising anti-Semitism in the country, of which the queer community was not immune. That said, he was also a very flawed figure, once threatening to out all the queer people he knew in government. His goal for a long while was to push the German government into repealing paragraph 175 in German law, the paragraph that banned relationships between two people society thought of as men.
A defining argument for this battle (and an argument the film focuses on) was not about ethics or morality but in fact practicality. Hirschfeld and many others believed making queer relationships illegal made blackmail a more common and easy to commit a crime. Since queer people being blackmailed could not seek legal assistance without outing themselves and thus dealing with the legal repercussions of their identity, the crime often went unreported. This is the main theme of Different from the Others, which was partly written and funded by Hirschfeld, who also acted in the film.
In this film we see Paul Körner, a violinist, fall in love with his student, Kurt Sivers. We see how a man blackmailing him destroys his entire existence. The film begins with Paul looking through a newspaper, seeing an article about suicide, and realizing that the person he was reading about was someone who had fallen victim to paragraph 175. In that discovery, we get one of the two most powerful moments in the film; we are shown a line of men, historical figures such as Oscar Wilde, Leonardo Da Vinci, and King Ludwig the second of Bavaria, and it says:
“Paul Körner senses a common thread: the sword of Damocles that is § 175 made life impossible for these unfortunate individuals. In his mind’s eye, he sees an endless procession of them, from all times and countries, passing in review.”
As the film moves, we see how the existence of paragraph 175 effect’s Paul’s life and relationships. We see how he is blackmailed, how he hides his relationship with his student, and how, once his student discovers that they are being blackmailed, he runs away. He chooses to live destitutely, rather than be there if his homosexuality is exposed. All throughout the narrative, neither of the men are blamed for these misfortunes. Magnus Hirschfeld himself states in his appearance in the film that:
“You mustn't think poorly of [Paul] because he is homosexual. He is not at all to blame for his orientation. It is neither a vice nor a crime, indeed not even an illness, but instead a variation, one of the borderline cases that frequently occur in nature. [Paul] suffers not from a condition, but rather from the false judgment of it. This is the legal and social condemnation of his feelings, along with the widespread misconceptions about their expression.”
Much of the film takes on this tone, at one point even setting a scene in a lecture hall where Hirschfeld teaches about the different forms of sexual attraction and gender expression. While the terminology has not aged well, it is still an incredibly progressive scene and one that would be surprising to find in any modern film.
As the film moves along, Paul takes legal action against his blackmailer, and the trial mirrors one that happened in real life in which Magnus was an expert witness. Here too he plays an expert witness, convincing the judge that Paul hurt no one and did not deserve to be punished. Though the judge agreed with him, he had no choice under paragraph 175 but to sentence Paul to jail time, though he made the time as short as possible, only having him serve a week. As Paul goes home, the news got out about his sexuality, and he is fired from his job, his friends shun him, and his family chastises him. Having lost everything, he commits suicide.
After this comes the other most powerful scene in the film. We see the line again, the line of men who have been victims of laws such as paragraph 175, and Paul joins the line.
The film ends on a slightly more optimistic note; Paul’s lover and former student returns to mourn Paul, and Paul’s family and society receive a condemnation from Kurt’s sister. When Kurt tries to kill himself in grief, Magnus’s character returns saying:
“If you want to honor the memory of your friend, then you mustn’t take your own life, but instead keep on living to change the prejudices whose victim -one of countless many- this dead man has become.”
The film ends with an image of paragraph 175 being crossed out, hammering its message in one last time, before leaving the audience with their thoughts.
This film was banned quickly after its release. Once Nazi’s were in power, they did their best to destroy the film entirely, but Magnus put portions of it into a different film. Since then, people have done their best to pull all these pieces together to make the film whole again. Though there are missing parts, this film is still an incredible watch, and progressive even by today’s standards. It is not a surprise that Magnus Hirschfeld, who was always ahead of his time, would help create a film so ahead of its. One must wonder, though, whether the fact it has stood the test of time so well is because of how far ahead it was, or because of how slowly cinema and television have moved since. Regardless, it is a comfort to know, even though Nazi’s did their best to rid the world of this film, it is now available on Youtube.
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